Scholarly article on topic 'Theory of Prayer and Medieval Epistemology. The Case of Thomas Aquinas'

Theory of Prayer and Medieval Epistemology. The Case of Thomas Aquinas Academic research paper on "History and archaeology"

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Abstract of research paper on History and archaeology, author of scientific article — Alexander Baumgarten

Abstract The object of the present analysis is a comparison between medieval theological reflection and the traditions of Neo-Platonist epistemology of Greek and Latin origin regarding the issue of self-consciousness. While aiming to clarify the meaning of a fragment from Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 83 [1], De oratione, I stop to reflect on the ways in which the concepts of conscientia or reditio completa have contributed to the medieval consecration of human individuality in prayer. The framework of the analysis is larger, as it starts from Greek and Latin Patristics and marks the fundamental moments in the parallelism between epistemology and the theory of the states of consciousness in devotional acts.

Academic research paper on topic "Theory of Prayer and Medieval Epistemology. The Case of Thomas Aquinas"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 71 (2013) 101 - 105

aInternational Workshop on the Historiography of Philosophy: Representations and Cultural

Constructions 2012

Theory of prayer and medieval epistemology. The case of Thomas Aquinas

Alexander Baumgarten

_Center of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Str. M.Kogalniceanu 1, Cluj-Napoca, Romania_


The object of the present analysis is a comparison between medieval theological reflection and the traditions of Neo-Platonist epistemology of Greek and Latin origin regarding the issue of self-consciousness. While aiming to clarify the meaning of a fragment from Summa Theologica, Ila Ilae, q. 83 [1], De oratione, I stop to reflect on the ways in which the concepts of conscientia or reditio completa have contributed to the medieval consecration of human individuality in prayer. The framework of the analysis is larger, as it starts from Greek and Latin Patristics and marks the fundamental moments in the parallelism between epistemology and the theory of the states of consciousness in devotional acts.

© 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer-review under responsibility of Claudiu Mesaros (West University of Timisoara, Romania). Keywords: Medieval philosophy; Neo-Platonisrt epistemology; self-consciousness; prayer.

The theme that we will debate regards the successive layers in the history of the concept of self-consciousness. In particular, given the extensive bibliography written on the theory of consciousness in Antiquity and, on the other hand, in the Latin Middle Ages, we will only analyse one particular aspect of this theory, reflected in the reservations of ancient and medieval philosophers concerning the completeness of the process of self-consciousness. Given the fact that this series of reservations has permeated different cultural layers, has passed through various thought systems, and has been subjected to several appraisals and knowledge intentionalities, we have to admit that the intended analysis is bound to display ambiguity. From this perspective, what is it that unites the Platonist reservations about the "truth master" (paraphrasing a title in Marcel Detienne's [2] classical exegesis), recognised by Plato under the fake figure of the sophist, from the reactions that medieval Latinity had to the issue of consciousness, regardless of whether they were done through the exegesis of consciousness of Stoic-Augustinian inspiration or through the interpretation to the renowned theory of reditio completa of Latin Neoplatonism? The unity of this tradition is given - we could say, thus advancing a first thesis - by the unity of the Platonist tradition throughout the entire Antiquity and Middle Ages, at the level of very general themes that Platonism has left for posterity: that the soul, according to the argument of "affinity" from Phaedrus [3], is

1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer-review under responsibility of Claudiu Mesaros (West University of Timisoara, Romania). doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.01.014

consubstantial to the most dense area of the universe from an ontological point of view, and that at this level knowledge simply means touching and being one with the real, in which any return to self of the soul becomes meaningless; that the return to self of the soul has a meaning only if this return leads to its own origin (from The Apology of Socrates to Alcibiades and Meno); finally, that the attributes of self oblivion of Achilles, in Hippias Minor [3], are used as such in defining good and moral divinity in The Republic [3], as a sign of the ontological assurance of the fact that the self oblivious purity and innocence (paying the price of wrath, in Achilles' case) is guaranteed in the order of the world by a supreme divinity.

Besides, this Platonist history has results which continued as a thought paradigm in which, in different theoretical contexts, its themes reappeared under a coherent shape. Even though the issue per se of the return to self of thought, in the meaning of conscientia (suneidesis) was a Stoic invention with extensive implication on early Christian thought, the Platonist theme of resorting to one's own interiority and its censors had the capacity of recognising themselves in new forms in Plotinus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and, in general, in the Latin interpreters of the Neoplatonist concept of reditio completa from Liber de Causis.

What could really surprise us in this historical endeavour is rediscovering the issue of censorship and of the incompleteness of consciousness on two different planes in The Middle Ages: on one hand, on the epistemological branch (here, the questions disputed in De Conscientia of medieval authors are relevant to the topic), and, on the other hand, in the rules of spiritual life and prayer (and here the questions from De Oratione of the same authors are relevant). Evolution is so differentiated that it sometimes presents cases of distinct solutions given to a common problematic nucleus, as we will see in the particular case of Thomas Aquinas.

In order to get as close as possible to the larger historical context of our topic, it is sufficient to mention the Platonist and Plotinian issue of the knowledge of truth. For both philosophers, the relationship between soul and truth implies self oblivion, with the functional value of adherence to truth. It is in this sense that we can understand the few Platonist fragments: in Hippias minor [3], the guarantee of the knowledge of truth stems from the simple nature (haplous) of Achilles' mind as opposed to the versatility of Ulysses (polutropos). We can argue that this aspect of the soul corresponds to the theory of the affinity between the soul and the comprehensible world, as it appears in the dialogue Phaedrus [3] and the declaration in The Republic [3] , according to which the soul which reaches truth must be akin to the gods who bear, textually, the same attributes as Achilles (aplous te kai aletes).

This theoretical situation, present in a nutshell in Platonism, undergoes a clearer theoretical development in Plotinus' Enneads [4]. Thus, Plotinus talks about the practical value of an incompletely realized self consciousness (in his treaty Of Happiness [4], where he who studies does not need to know he studies). Since one can interpret the act of self-knowledge as the effort of the human intellect to come back to its origin through a conversion effort (in the treaty Of Circular Motion [4]), and keeping in mind that this conversion is fundamentally incomplete (ibidem, and the treaty Of Contemplation [4]), one can perceive a natural compatibility in the case of Plotinus between the principle of the incompleteness of self consciousness and the principle of the incomplete conversion of world levels to their origin.

This idea can be found generously in Latin Patristics. Out of many examples, one can mention John Cassian [5] for whom "he is not a true monk he who, when praying, knows that he is praying" ("non est, inquit, perfecta oratio in qua se monachus, vel hoc ipsum quod orat, intelligit"), as well as Augustine, with his famous creation scene with angels as assistants from De civitate Dei, XI, 29. In this latter fragment, the angels overlooking the creation go through a mental change which corresponds to the times of the day, starting from a "morning" knowledge marked by admiration, contemplation and self oblivion, to an "evening" knowledge, marked by the seduction of substituting the viewer with the author of the creation, as a sign of their full self consciousness. After the seduction, it is known, the angels fall.

Contrary to this apology of incomplete self knowledge, Neo-Platonism has developed an opposite theory, related to sustaining a principle of the completeness of any comprehensible reality's return upon itself. This principle is to be found in Proclus' Elements of Theology [6], and one of its clearest wordings is in sentence 15:

"All that is capable of reverting upon itself is incorporeal" This idea was transmitted to the Latin Middle Ages -in the scholastics of the thirteenth century, right before its translation (in 1268, by William of Moerbeke) - by Proclus' pseudo-Aristotelian book, Liber de Causis (The Book of Causes) [7], which claims in sentence XIV: "omnis sciens qui scit essentiam suam est reddiens ad essentiam suam reditione completa" This fragment is considered one of the centres of the medieval debate on consciousness, and Thomas Aquinas' comment on this section is consistent with the author's approach and the Proclian tradition. However, the medieval debate on self consciousness returns to a diverse polemic between the two pillars in the history of Neo-Platonism: reditio completa and incompleta. Owing to the research of François-Xavier Putallaz [8;9], we now know that authors such as Thomas Aquinas favor the first option, whereas, for example, Siger of Brabant is reluctant to this theory, even though the specter of the comments to Liber de Causis, including those already edited, offer more diversified solutions.

Keeping in mind the fact that the Greek and Latin Neo-Platonisms have sustained, in different moments of their developments, opposite theories on the issue of the completeness of consciousness, we would like to argue that Thomas Aquinas has inherited both these theories and that, despite their conflicting meanings, they function independently in his work. This thesis can only be partially sustained by a direct textual study. If Thomas was able to know the Proclian idea of complete conversion from Liber de Causis and, eventually, directly by reading Elements of Theology, he could have only known Plotinus' reluctance to the same theory indirectly.

Both theories are indeed present in the Thomas Aquinas' works. The first can be encountered in his Commentary on the Book of Causes, lectio 15, written in 1272. Here, the theory of consciousness reverting upon itself has a novel form, as it sustains the validity of completeness, but in the case of inferior intellects, only through an imperfect form, by resorting to the superior ones. In order to provide evidence for this, Thomas uses Dionysius the Areopagite [9], reuniting the Neo-Platonist traditions which had a common origin:

(ed. Saffrey, p. 91, l. 15-p. 92, l. 9): Ubi diligenter considerandum est quod supra, cum de intellectuum cognitione ageret, dixit quod primus intellectus intelligit seipsum tantum, ut in XIIIa propositione dictum est, quia scilicet est ipsa forma intelligibilis idealis; alii vero intellectus tamquam ei propinqui participant a primo intellectu et formam intelligibilitatis et virtutem intellectualis, sicut Dionysius dicit IVo capitulo De divinis nominibus quod supremae substantiae intellectuales sunt et intelligibiles et intellectuales; unde unusquisque eorum intelligit et seipsum et superiorem quem participat. Sed quia anima intellectiva inferiori modo participat primum intellectum, in substantia sua non habet nisi vim intellectualitatis; unde intelligit substantiam suam, non per essentiam suam, sed secundum Platonicos, per superiora que participat, secundum Aristotelem autem, in IIIo De anima, per intelligibiles species quae efficiuntur quodammodo formae in quantum per eas fit in actu (s.n).

Thomas' interpretation of self consciousness, which has allowed for a difference between self-knowledge through essence and through operation [10], underlines here the imperfection of the operation of inferior consciousness (human) which needs the superior intellects in order to reach itself. However, Thomas does not deny the complete nature of this operation, even though it has been carried out in an imperfect manner. On the contrary, the complete nature of the operation is assured by the Aristotelian axiom of the intellect and the comprehensible, rendering substantial reditio and operational reditio equivalent. We can now affirm, as we want to compare the theory of self consciousness with the theory of prayer: if the principle of the completeness of the return of consciousness upon itself is assured by the aforementioned Aristotelian identity, then the territory where this identity no longer applies should leave space for the incompleteness of the return of consciousness upon itself.

For the moment, we can follow the parallelism between Thomas' solution as it appears in his comment on Liber de Causis and the development of the theme of self consciousness in Summa Theologica [1]: if God knows himself through himself (cognoscit se per se), thus being the simplest form of reditio completa, that which does not need to go out of itself [1], our intellect undergoes the same operation, but through the intelligible species (cognoscit se per speciem intelligibilem). As we can see, the solution here only partly considers the interpretation from the commentary on Liber de Causis, where knowledge through the intelligible species is merely an explanation in the Aristotelian fashion for the Neo-Platonist understanding of knowledge through superior

intellect. If we compare this statement of divine self-knowledge with the angelic self-knowledge from Ia, q. 56, a. 1 (Whether an angel knows himself?), we can conclude that, by applying two different readings to the Latin translation of Celestial Hierarchy, VI, 1 (angeli ignorant suas facultates, as opposed to angeli cognoscant suas facultates), Thomas develops a theory in which the angel knows himself, but only through his intelligible form, which is already a sign of imperfection in the reditio completa. This scale of an increasingly imperfect self-knowledge descends from God to angel and then man, until the resounding statement from Ia, q. 87, a. 1, which states that the human soul cannot know itself in this life through its own essence. This situation restates the solution given in the commentary on Liber de Causis more explicitly. Here, the Neo-Platonist knowledge solution is reserved for the immaterial life of the soul, while the Aristotelian one is reserved for life and material experience:

(Ia q. 87, a. 1, ad resp.): si igitur intellectus humanus fieret actu per participationem formarum intelligibilium separatarum, ut platonici posuerunt, per huiusmodi participationem rerum incorporearum intellectus humanus seipsum intelligeret. Sed quia connaturale est intellectui nostro, secundum statum praesentis vitae, quod ad materialia et sensibilia respiciat, sicut supra dictum est, consequens est ut sic seipsum intelligat intellectus noster, secundum quod fit actu per species a sensibilibus abstractas per lumen intellectus agentis, quod est actus ipsorum intelligibilium, et eis mediantibus intellectus possibilis. Non ergo per essentiam suam, sed per actum suum se cognoscit intellectus noster.

This differentiation between divine and angelic knowledge is done, as it can now be seen, within the two options presented as alternative in the Commentary on the Book of Causes. Because of this, the collaboration between human and superior intellects breaks the possibility of a reditio completa of the human intellect, as the Aristotelian manner of knowledge resulted from the conditioning of material experience has been suppressed.

For these reasons, the second theory with Ancient roots, that of the incompleteness of self consciousness, can be found in Thomist contexts which talk about the inspired nature of the mind's access to divine nature. These are, in principal, three. The first regards the formal condition of communication between man and his guardian angel, where the incompleteness of self consciousness is the guarantee of the functioning of synderesis (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, q. 16, a. 1). The second is connected to the nature of prayer and refers to Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 83 [1], De oratione, where prayer is possible with the condition of a minimal self oblivion, which demonstrates the (probably indirect) Thomist recovery of Cassian's transfer from the principle of a Neo-Platonist epistemology to a theory of prayer. The third indirectly refers to the construction of divine names in Summa Theologica, q. 13, a. 5 [1] where the distinction between modi significandi and rationes significatae shifts the justification of divine names from the first ones, which belong to humans, to the last, which belong to the divine and which are the only sources of certainty for these names; names which man alone, through his conscience, does not have access to. While the last case does not actually discuss the issue of self consciousness, but only offers us a scheme compatible with a possible Thomist preference for the second theory, the first two cases are clear.

Thus, the first case brings into discussion the nature of synderesis as a faculty of communication between humans and angels, without the will or intellect of the former being affected by the latter's suggestion for the good deed. In order for the angel to penetrate consciousness, it has to be incomplete, since the angel offers man intellectus principiorum as a disposition to the faculty called synderesis. This is given to man without the possibility of a rational foundation through the consciousness' reverting upon itself:

Cum haec quidem cognitio sit quasi seminarium quoddam totius cognitionis sequentis; et in omnibus naturis sequentium operationum et effectuum quaedam naturalia semina praeexistant (De veritate, q. 16, a. 1, ad resp.).

The second case discusses the nature of prayer. In Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 109, a. 2 ad 4 [1], Thomas distinguishes between veracitas and simplicitas as different forms of relating to truth. Veracitas implies a reditio and, therefore, is considered relevant for a link to justice and the conscious confession of truth. Simplicitas, on the other hand, implies an uncritical and spontaneous relation to truth (facit intentionem rectam). It is on this concept of simplicity (with obvious roots in the New Testament) that an observation from Summa Theologica, IIa

IIae, q. 83 [1] is formed. Here, prayer is an actus rationis, but at the same time a Deo traditio et unitio (a. 1), in which divine nature can inspire the objects of prayer (a. 9). But art. 13, by analysing the category of attention in prayer (so important, in fact, in the spiritual tradition of the School of Saint Victor), perceives an interesting fact about the ultimate form of prayer: that it renounces self perception as if it were an act which could hinder the complete accomplishment of the soul's tendency to the divine:

Sciendum tamen quod est triplex attentio quae orationi vocali potest adhiberi. Una quidem qua attenditur ad verba, ne quis in eis erret. Secunda qua attenditur ad sensum verborum. Tertia qua attenditur ad finem orationis, scilicet ad Deum et ad rem pro qua oratur: quae quidem est maxime necessaria. Et hanc etiam possunt habere idiotae. Et quandoque intantum abundat haec intentio, qua mens fertur in Deum, ut etiam omnium aliorum mens obliviscatur, sicut dicit Hugo de Sancto Victore.

The text presents a border epistemological situation (qua mens fertur in Deum) and implicitly sustains an incompleteness of self consciousness (omnium aliorum mens obliviscatur). Therefore, it presents itself as somewhat reluctant to the absolute form of the principle of reditio completa from its Proclian version. This reluctance, as we have seen, has a formal structure in the fragments from Summa Theologica which regard the imperfection of human self consciousness. Furthermore, it finds a first content in the discussion on synderesis, and, finally, a more comprehensive content in the study of attention in prayer.


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